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Baptism in the Name of Jesus

I have recently had some conversations with some friends within our discipleship network about baptism. A video, in fact, was sent to me with a teaching on why we should baptize in the name of Jesus instead of in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit as Jesus says in Matthew 28:19.

I hope to represent the discussion well, and I write this primarily to help myself think this through as I tend to do best when I can organize the ideas coming to me and then organize my ideas as well.

So, let’s start with an outline of the teaching that was sent to me.

Looking at Matthew 28, we see that Jesus is returning to heaven to be with the Father and he is giving his final instructions to his disciples. He says:

Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

Matthew 28:18-20

However, later, in the book of Acts, we see that the apostles baptize in the name of Jesus. Here are some examples:

Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Acts 2:38

When they arrived, they prayed for the new believers there that they might receive the Holy Spirit, because the Holy Spirit had not yet come on any of them; they had simply been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.

Acts 8:15-16

“Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptized with water. They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” So he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked Peter to stay with them for a few days.

Acts 10:47-48

On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.

Acts 19:5

The assertion here, then, is that the apostles did not baptize as Jesus told them, in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but instead in the name of Jesus.

So why, according to my friends who are teaching this, would the apostles do this?

The first justification is that they believe that Jesus gave them additional revelation and instruction through the Holy Spirit. In the book of John, we can see that Jesus tells his disciples this:

“I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. He will glorify me because it is from me that he will receive what he will make known to you. All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will receive from me what he will make known to you.”

John 16:12-15

So in this scripture, we see that Jesus says that he has more to say to them and that the Holy Spirit will guide them in the truth. As a result, my friends say that baptizing in the name of Jesus – as we see in the four scriptures above – is one of those things that Jesus teaches the apostles through the Holy Spirit.

Another scripture that they point to is in Colossians where Paul admonishes the Colossian church:

And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

Colossians 3:17

Clearly, baptizing someone is something that we would do in deed, so this also would fall into the category of being done in the name of Jesus.

I’ve asked whether or not they consider this to be a contradiction between what Jesus said and what they are saying is the practice of the apostles to baptize in the name of Jesus. They say No, there is no contradiction. Here are the points to explain why:

First, they say that we know that when Jesus says to baptize in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we aren’t actually “saying their names”. We know the name of the son – Jesus – but otherwise the Holy Spirit is called the Spirit of Christ.

In terms of the “name of the Father”, they point to John 17:26 where they say that, in the Greek, Jesus says that he has revealed the Father’s name to the people, not only that he has made the Father known to the people as it is translated in English in the NIV.

Second, they say, we know that the name of Jesus is the only name that saves, so why is there a need to say another “name”?

Finally, they point out that when the Holy Spirit came, the disciples, now as the apostles, would have understood that the name Yeshua means Yah saves, so if we say that we’re baptizing in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, then by baptizing in the name of Jesus creates no contradiction.


Framing the issue

OK, so now we’re asking… what do we think about this? From my perspective, I’m thinking about a few different components to this question:

First, theologically, is there a problem here? Is this interpretation creating a contradiction within the scripture, or is it possible that the method being used here is flawed?

Second, the goal of our work is to make disciples that make disciples. Therefore, it is clear that what is taught is, by definition, intended to be passed down and practiced. We are teaching one to teach another to teach another, etc., over multiple generations. If we endorse a practice that is not good in one way, we would expect to see this practice handed down from one generation to the next.

Third, in our Christian world where we are known for division, I think that it is important to fight for unity. If that is the goal, then, what are the criteria that we should use to be certain that, if we are to divide, we are doing it based on very good reasons that address the core of our faith, not on a secondary issue that shouldn’t be significant enough to ultimately regret making a decision for division.


Theological discussion

Theologically speaking, here are a few thoughts that I’ve had regarding baptizing in the name of Jesus.

First, I acknowledge that, at the least, the book of Acts says that the apostles call for new believers to be baptized in the name of Jesus. The question that I have, then, is whether or not that necessarily means that they are doing something different than what Jesus had directly told them to do. To make a couple of examples, could it be that they were drawing a couple of possible distinctions here? Here are two possibilities that I can think of:

One option might be that they are drawing a distinction between the baptism of John the Baptist, the other popular baptism happening at that same time done as a sign of repentance before God, and a baptism in the name of Jesus. In that case, maybe they would call for people to be baptized in the name of Jesus but yet, at the point of actually baptizing someone, they do as Jesus commanded and baptize “in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”.

A second possibility that I have seen in the commentaries is that the apostles, when saying that people should be baptized in the name of Jesus, are drawing a distinction for the Jewish people. For them, and for any others who are already part of monotheistic faiths, to be called to be baptized in the name of Jesus would be a distinguishing factor from what they have known previously. Belief in the ability to come to God through Jesus distinguishes the new believer from their previous faith of some other ways to connect to God, whether through sacrifices, good deeds, or otherwise.

So as I’ve thought about this, I’ve sort of (I think – I’m not sure, yet…) convinced myself that, if I were to go to a baptism today, and the person baptizing said to the one being baptized, “I baptize you in the name of Jesus Christ!” and then dunked them in the water, I might think – Hmm… that seems different than what I understand, but… OK…

But it is the next part of the discussion where I sense some concern welling up within myself and a sense of potential danger. When my friends pointed to John 16:12-15, it seems to me to be a problem. As a refresher, it says:

“I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. He will glorify me because it is from me that he will receive what he will make known to you. All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will receive from me what he will make known to you.”

John 16:12-15

Here are a couple of reasons why this concerns me:

First, Jesus says that he has much more to say than his disciples can now bear. To me, this suggests that there are things that he will explain to them that he hasn’t explained to them previously, things he hasn’t spoken about. An example of this might be how the church should function and how leadership might work amongst them as they form their community. These will be important issues for them in the future as they lead others, but the specifics of these issues haven’t been addressed to date from Jesus, at least as far as we know. So this might be something that the Holy Spirit would speak to them about and could be something more than they could bear.

And second, the invocation of this verse, saying that the Holy Spirit spoke to the disciples, telling them to do something different than what Jesus had told them to do previously seems pretty difficult to swallow from my perspective. Why would Jesus tell the disciples to do one thing only to have the Holy Spirit tell them something different just a few days later?

As a result, this is where I have a concern because if we are willing to make an interpretation here that Jesus would say one thing and then subsequently say, without any direct evidence, that the Holy Spirit told the apostles something different, that leaves a lot of the scripture up in the air. It is a “slippery slope”, as they say, because if you can interpret one scripture in this way, you could do the same with others.

It seems to me that, instead of saying that there is a “new revelation” we should be considering some other explanation for the difference between what Jesus said and what we see the disciples saying within the book of Acts. Is it possible that one of the explanations above, or potentially yet another explanation, could be the reason for the difference?

How we practice

Now, moving on to the issue of how we practice… Within our network of disciples and disciple-makers, I think that there are a few things that we should keep in mind:

First, we should assume that there will be theological differences and differences in practice between us and the people that we are working with. We should both be prepared for this and prepared for how we can distinguish between issues that are at the “core” of both our theology and our practice and those that are not. In this case, we need to confirm, theologically, how close to the core these issues are, and for what reasons.

Second, because the very nature of our work is to create generations of disciples (disciples making disciples), we need to be sure that we are OK with the passing down of a particular type of teaching.

Beyond that, what are the points that we want to make sure are taught in a particular way. For example, our second lesson within the Commands of Christ specifically teaches a way of baptizing, and that in the name of the Father, the Son, and Holy Spirit. Are we OK with someone leading others in a way that is different from others that we are teaching?

It seems that changes are likely to happen in other contexts as well, especially as we think about the use of specific disciple-making tools as we are likely to run into various types of tools that individuals will use. I suppose this, then, probably ultimately connects back to our theological views. Are we OK with what would be not only a change in the practice but also the theological perspective?

Fighting for Unity

In the last point around fighting for unity, I think that we need to seriously consider what it means to fight for unity among us as believers. Below are some questions to ask ourselves that I have been considering for this question, and potentially for other things that will likely come up in the future:

  • Is Jesus being exalted and held up as our King and Savior if we do this?
  • Is God being glorified if we do this?
  • Are we certain that we are hearing from the Holy Spirit if we do this?
  • Can we maintain a core connection to our faith while continuing to work together without sacrificing what we believe is correct biblically?
  • Are we continuing to speak the same ministry “language” and staying true to our vision of seeing a movement go forward if we do this?

I think that, if we can answer Yes to these questions, we should probably have good reason to continue to maintain unity amongst us.

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